Walk on by

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2001, 12:00am

Although rumours suggest Hong Kong's beggars are among the best off in the world, with some said to earn as much as $50,000 a month, few would accept this as true. We witness their misfortune every day; see them sleeping rough under flyovers and in shop entrances, even in typhoons. And their ranks are increasing: recently released statistics from the Department of Social Welfare show the number of known homeless leaped from 858 in January last year to 1,259 in December. They beg on busy streets at the feet of well-heeled passers-by, taunted by huge neon signs advertising designer clothes, luxury watches and the latest must-have gadgets.

Above Lee Tin-ying's life fell apart in 1997 -'the year those b******* took over,' she says, pointing to the five-star flag outside the Chinese emporium in Jordan. That year, an operation on her cataracts by a mainland-qualified doctor, operating illegally in Kowloon City, went wrong. She lost her sight and her dishwashing job at a Mongkok restaurant, and has been begging ever since. 'The money was good at first,' she says. 'But, for two years now, I've been getting only $50 to $70 a day.' This pittance is barely enough for her to buy food and pay the rent on her 60-square-foot room in a decrepit Yau Ma Tei hovel. Every day, she asks a passer-by to take her to her favourite spot on Jordan Road, where she begs from 3pm until midnight. Her tin is usually empty until 10pm when the emporium closes and shoppers pass her on their way to the MTR.

Right Making his home in the subway connecting Statue Square and the Star Ferry terminal, one man, who refused to give his name, couldn't care less about the thousands of people who rush by him each day. He says he isn't a beggar, but he neither refuses - nor looks grateful - when a tourist drops a $100 note in front of him. Shortly afterwards, two Filipina missionaries approach him and ask him if they can help. Quick to anger, he shouts 'Leave me alone'

until they turn on their heels and flee. Apart from a daily walk in the

nearby gardens, he mostly stays in the same spot, resting on his neatly folded quilt, smoking mocha-flavoured mini cigars.

Bottom right Li Han, 72, is furious when a passer-by drops a 10-cent coin into her red plastic mug, complaining she is begging at the 'wrong end' of the Statue Square-Star Ferry underpass; she is nearer the ferry terminal. 'They make so much more money than

I do,' she says, pointing at other beggars on the slope up to the square. 'I came too late.'

Forced to retire from her factory job in 1990, Li lived on her meagre savings until she resorted to begging five years ago. 'On rare good days I get $200, but most of the time I'm lucky to make $50. Maybe I don't look poor enough,' she says. Her only family is three stepsons who 'can't even take care of themselves'. Li tried to apply for social security last year, but was told she wasn't eligible because she has sons. To qualify, she was told she needed an affidavit proving their negligence. 'That piece of paper costs $800. How can I find that kind of money when I can't even afford to go the doctor?' she says.

Below left Chow, 73, has been begging in Yau Ma Tei for seven years. She appears to be sick, and doesn't like to be bothered. She sits almost motionless on her cart for most of the day, nodding at the occasional generous passer-by, and spitting at anyone who disturbs her solitude but has no intention of giving her money. Every night, she pushes her cart into an alley near Temple Street to sleep.

Below right Lo hasn't heard from his son since he lost his job as a security guard six years ago. 'I wouldn't be here if my family was around,' he says despondently. He usually begs at the same spot on Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, and hates moving - 'I don't remember the last time I crossed the harbour,' he says. However, he flits between Nathan Road and Hankow Road when there are more people and to avoid the police. He says officers in the area used to be more tolerant towards beggars, but have become 'much less kind' in recent months.

Bottom Kwong worked as a construction worker until he lost his right leg in a site accident seven years ago. He could apply for social security, he says, but would rather make a living on his own, playing harmonica tunes his uncle taught him when he was young. Kwong says Mongkok used to be a popular area for begging because 'there are people walking about all day', but is less so since police began regularly 'advising' beggars to move elsewhere two years ago. 'People are much stingier these days,' he adds. 'I can sit here all day and not get enough money to buy a rice box.'